James Mirtle - My writing

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Hard times fall on B.C. boomtown of hockey success: Kamloops Blazers: Interior city no longer the envy of junior teams across the country

Monday, January 24, 2005
Page: S8,
Section: Sports
Byline: James
Source: National Post

Three hundred kilometres northeast of Vancouver, up the well-trod Trans-Canada highway and into the Interior, you'll find Kamloops, B.C., a city where a hockey team became as much a part of the geography as the arid hills and rushing Thompson Rivers.

The Kamloops Blazers won the Memorial Cup three of four years in the 1990s (1992, '93 and '95), while producing an impressive group of future NHL players (Jarome Iginla, Mark Recchi, Scott Niedermayer, Darcy Tucker, Darryl Sydor, Shane Doan) and future NHL coaches (Ken Hitchcock, Tom Renney and Don Hay).

A blue collar city of 80,000, Kamloops was the envy of junior hockey for nearly two decades, when it was known as "Little Montreal" for its prowess. These days, the comparisons to junior hockey's elite are few. The team has suffered through a front-office scandal, poor on-ice performances and a revolving door of management and coaches. The dynasty's walls, long since worn, are crumbling.

This season the Blazers have a record of 17-23-3-2, placing them last in their division and three points out of the playoffs. It is unfamiliar territory for a franchise that has not missed the post-season in its 24-year history.

"We're right in the hunt of it," Blazers general manager Dean Clark said, one day removed from a pair of lopsided losses to the Calgary Hitmen and Red Deer Rebels. "Obviously we're trying to make the playoffs. That's the goal every year. We're definitely a young club, and it's going to be a tough climb to get there."

The team got even younger recently when Clark dealt two disgruntled veterans, captain Jarret Lukin and Cam Cunning, after both requested trades. The moves prompted suggestions the club was rebuilding--a course it has been said Kamloops fans would never accept.

"We had gotten pretty full of ourselves to the point where we thought we'd always win," said Clark. "But we've lost in the first round five years in a row now, and it's time to do something different. We did a lot of winning over the past 20 years, and teams are all getting their shots in now."

Clark and Blazers head coach Mark Ferner played together for Kamloops in the early 80's, beginning when the team was owned by the Edmonton Oilers. Members of the community purchased the club in 1984, the same year a young Hitchcock arrived and coached the team to a 52-17-2 record.

In the years following, the Blazers continually avoided junior hockey's cyclical nature, spoiling their fans with one impressive season after another. In 14 years prior to the 1996-97 season, the club had eight 50-win seasons and fell below the 40-win mark only once.

Recent years have not been as kind. Colin Day, the team's president since 1982, resigned in the fall of 2003 after a front-office embezzlement scandal. On the ice, the Blazers have eclipsed 40 wins just once in the last eight seasons. The team even retired Taking Care of Business, the longtime Blazer anthem for home goals.

And now, with the franchise on the brink of a first-ever playoff miss, the pressure is on a young team with only four players over 18.

"The pressure [to make the playoffs] just has to be to a point," said Ferner, who played 94 NHL games during a motley 16-year pro career. "Worrying about making the playoffs is one thing, but going in and competing is another. We're worried about what the score was before the game has started."

"We have high standards," said Clark. "Mark and I both played for this team, so if anyone knows [about the pressure], we know.

"I don't think anybody in [the dressing room] doesn't know we have never missed the playoffs. They know."

Blazers goaltender Devan Dubnyk, an Oilers first-round pick in the 2004 entry draft, said the team is anxious not to be remembered as the one that put former glories to rest.

"There's absolutely no way that we're going to be that team," said Dubnyk. "I'm prepared to play every single game as hard as I can to make sure of that.

"Kamloops is an unbelievable city to play junior hockey in, and it does add pressure. The fans are very supportive and involved, and people just really want us to win."

Even without the wins, Clark says the team is determined to bring pride to the rink with another Blazer staple: hard work.

"One of the things we are bringing back is the culture. We're slowly chipping away to become a team that is going to work hard, like those old Blazer teams were known for."

And while fans in Kamloops appreciate the effort, reminders of days gone by are never far. They need only to catch a glimpse of the rafters to see dozens of championship banners.


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